AUGUSTA — Maine voters will participate in one of the biggest events of the 2020 presidential campaign – the Super Tuesday primaries – and will have an easier time registering for the first time under new laws passed by legislators.

Lawmakers also took steps to improve transparency surrounding ballot initiatives. But they rejected more sweeping changes to Maine’s referendum process, defeated several attempts to roll back the state’s new ranked-choice voting process and deadlocked over a proposal to scrap the Electoral College.

The 2019 legislative session that ended last month featured several major election- or voting-related debates, most of which succeeded or failed along bipartisan lines despite Democrats’ clear numerical advantage in terms of seats held.

CAUCUSES REPLACED

The session may be best remembered as the year that Maine decided to join the majority of states that use simple primary elections rather than caucuses to allow voters to express their preferences for presidential nominees.

And while Maine’s small population means it still won’t make a big splash in the upcoming primary battles, Mainers will  join voters in 13 other states casting ballots on the single-largest primary day of the 2020 elections: Super Tuesday on March 3.

Maine typically holds non-presidential primaries in June. But more than 40 other states will have held primaries or caucuses by the time Maine held a June primary, which is why bill supporters opted to join the Super Tuesday crowd.

“The problem with the presidential primary is if you have it in June, you’re just not relevant,” said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, whose office oversees elections. While Maine won’t get as much attention as other Super Tuesday states like California or Texas, Dunlap said, “we’ll be in that mix, and we will be a lot more relevant.”

In a primary, voters can stroll into a polling place, cast their ballot, grab an “I voted” sticker and then resume their daily routine. To supporters, that makes primaries voter-friendly and encourages participation. In the Maine primaries next year, each party will be allowed to decide whether to allow unenrolled or independent voters to participate or to keep them as “closed primaries” only open to registered party members.

Caucuses are much more engaging, often requiring participants to spend hours listening to advocates for candidates and then debates among other caucus-goers before voting even begins. Caucuses are also useful for party-building, particularly at the local level. But sometimes voter enthusiasm overwhelms the caucus system.

In 2016, for instance, supporters of Democratic contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton waited in line outside the Portland caucus location for hours as organizers struggled to register everyone for the event. Although less extreme, other locations from both parties also reported crowds so large that they delayed the actual caucusing.

Kathy Montejo, Lewiston city clerk and chairwoman of the legislative policy committee of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association, said local clerks were divided on the caucus vs. primary issue.

The 27 percent who supported the switch believed it would address the logistical issues – such as insufficient space or parking and voter confusion – that arose in some locations in 2016. But the 52 percent in opposition expressed concerns about costs, potentially low participation and the likelihood of winter weather in March.

“Whatever the state Legislature adopts as laws, we are going to implement accordingly,” Montejo said. “I think the difference of opinion of the members really depended on the experience of the caucus in that town or county (in 2016). If it went well, that was great.”

AUTOMATIC REGISTRATION

In another change, Mainers will now be automatically registered to vote – unless they explicitly opt out – when they obtain a new driver’s license or conduct other business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, the automatic system will update voter registration data when they change their address on a driver’s license.

Eighteen other states have some form of automatic voter registration, which changes the paperwork process for registering individuals but does not change the eligibility criteria. For instance, noncitizens who legally obtain driver’s licenses would still be prohibited from voting in Maine because the system will check citizenship status.

Dunlap said the change will streamline the bureaucratic paper trail between the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions.

“It will be a relatively simple implementation,” said Dunlap, whose office houses both bureaus.

Supporters also portrayed the change as yet another way to make potential voters’ lives easier.

“When it comes to participation in our democracy, Mainers have a long list of things to be proud of,” House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said while testifying in support of her bill. “Putting into place an AVR system, that strengthens our democracy and saves us time and money, while increasing the accuracy and security of our election system is our next step.”

Not everyone agrees with the concept of automatic registration, however.

Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst at the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said Maine has no barriers to registering to vote under current law. For instance, individuals can register at the polling place on Election Day, and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles already gives individuals a chance to “opt in” to register.

Crepeau raised concerns about people being registered when they didn’t want to and about potentially duplicate registrations, particularly among college students. But mostly, registering to vote is about personal responsibility, Crepeau said.

“It’s a personal choice,” he said. “Individuals should have the choice to opt in, or to opt out. … We believe in individual choice.”

CITIZEN INITIATIVES

Crepeau and the Maine Heritage Policy Center were enthusiastic about two new laws that tweak Maine’s oft-used citizen initiative process.

One bill passed with strong, bipartisan support would require the Legislature to hold public hearings on all citizen initiatives before they are placed on the ballot. Several high-profile ballot initiatives in recent years were not the subject of public hearings.

“We were definitely in favor of making it easier for the public to weigh in,” Crepeau said. “This is just more of a transparency measure.”

The second measure will require the Secretary of State’s Office to to explicitly describe what a “yes” or a “no” vote on a ballot question means.

Lawmakers rejected several other bills that targeted the referendum process, however. Those included a prohibition against petition circulators being paid per signature and a proposed constitutional amendment to require that a minimum number of petition signatures come from each congressional district.

Another bill that failed would have added Maine to the growing list of states trying to move the U.S. toward electing the president via the national popular vote rather than the Electoral College.

Democrats also defeated several attempts to eliminate or scale back the use of ranked-choice voting in state elections. But a bill that would utilize ranked-choice voting in next March’s presidential primaries got hung up in the final hours of the legislative session and was “carried over” until 2020 or a special session later this year.

 

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